Words for Writers: Protecting Your Work

Words for Writers: Protecting Your Work

More Q & A Time based on some questions I’ve gotten recently.

Before I dive into this topic, I want to clear up a pair of definitions, which are very important for you as a writer to know.

Intellectual Property – (I often refer to this as an IP below) – This is the idea that you own. It is the world, the characters, the concepts, the narrative that you created. IPs are intangible in essence, but can be written down as a Manuscript, a Screenplay, a invention design, etc.

Book – A book is the product that the publisher (either a traditional publisher or you, as your own self-publisher) creates using your Intellectual Property. A book is a physical or electronic thing that is bought and sold, and has things like a cover, images, and typesetting. The content of the book is your IP.

So for example: I own the characters Basil Grey, Gwen Pierson and Kalp, and the concepts of an Aglunate and Unit, and the particular world narrative that I wrote; and Dragon Moon Press is the publisher of the book Triptych.

 DMP does not own the IP but does have the exclusive contractual right to publish books and ebooks of Triptych, as per the agreement we signed together.

If for some reason DMP decides it doesn’t want to publish Triptych any more, or I decide to part ways from them, then the IP goes with me and they have no permission to publish Triptych any longer, in any format, including a new one. However, I have no rights to say what they do with those copies of Triptych that already exist.

Simply put: The IP is mine; the book is theirs.

Also, before we get into this topic, you might want to swing by Gabrielle Harbowy’s blog post on TRUST ISSUES, which is a great primer. Alright, ready to go? Let’s dive in!

Right, on to the frequently asked questions!

 Q: How can I copyright my work?

The Government of Canada website says this about copyright:

“The general rule is that the author/creator is the first owner of copyright, subject to any agreement between parties that states otherwise. The owner can give, assign, or license copyright in parts or in its entirety. There are special rules for works created by employees that vest copyright in the employer, and for commissioned photographs, portraits or engravings that vests copyright in the person commissioning the work as long as the creator is paid for the work.”

In short: the minute you write it down, you own it. Unless you sell the intellectual property in its entirety ad infinitum. (I can’t recommend or not recommend selling your IP – this has to be a personal choice.)

Q: Yeah, but if I want to be really sure?

  1. Registered Mail: print your manuscript, package it up, take it to the post office and mail it to yourself via registered mail. Do NOT open it when it arrives, and put it in storage until such a time that you need to produce the package before a judge/court/legal council to prove the authenticity of your draft. The date on the package and the fact that it is unsealed means that whatever is inside existed on the mailing date. They will then open the package and review the content and compare it to whatever it is that is challenging your IP’s age, authenticity, and originality.
  2. Keep sequential drafts in your hard drive and on an external drive and make sure your copy of your writing software is legally registered to your name and address, in case someone needs to verify the fingerprint details of the documents. Always back this chain of drafts up with an external hard drive or a cloud drive, or a thumb drive, etc. (I do all three because I’m a paranoid bastard and my computer has a history of garbling files).
  3. Use the Writers Guild of Canada registry bank, or any similar registry run by a creative guild or union in your country. (A word of warning: this may cost money! Be prepared to pay an archival fee, and possibly an annual fee to keep it archived on top of that.) Each archival bank will have its own rules, so read them carefully.


Q: What about registering an ISBN Number?

ISBN (definition) numbers are assigned to individual books when the books are ready to become products that a consumer can buy. Both ebooks and print books have ISBN numbers.

ISBN numbers are for books, not IPs.

If you are going the traditional publishing route, your publisher will take care of acquiring and assigning an ISBN number to your book. You don’t need to worry about that in advance.

If you are self-pubbing, you can read about getting an ISBN number here.

Q: I heard that you can get zillions of dollars just thinking up ideas and selling them.

Some people do. Usually because they have gigantic names and can command that kind of fee. If you don’t have a gigantic name, a high powered agent, and command that kind of fee, please rethink your expectations.

Generally, if you are a new name, agents and publishers will only look at work that’s already complete. You need to prove that you can not only have awesome ideas, but that you can follow through and complete them, and actually write well.

Most people are so busy thinking up their own ideas that they have no time or desire to develop yours. And most people don’t buy a half-finished project. So you’d spend your time better writing your own ideas than trying to sell them with no work to show for it.

Q: What if someone options my book for a film?

This is a bit complicated. Technically speaking, if we’re going to talk nitty gritty economics of who owns what, when, it goes like this*:

i.      You write a book and therefore you own the Intellectual Property/Copyright

ii.      You lease that IP to a publisher on the agreement that they will make it into a book and sell it (this may or may not include clauses for foreign rights versions, alternate print runs and covers, audio books, merchandise, etc.)

iii.      The publisher pays for the right to lease the IP by giving you a cut of the sales (i.e. your royalties). If there’s merchandise based on your IP (example: teeshirts, posters, etc), then your agent may be able to bargain for a percentage of that, as well. But that depends on you/your agent/the publisher/etc.

iv.      Said lease may be in ad infinitum (meaning, forever) or for a set number of years, or until either of you invoke your Sunset Clause and renege on the deal (usually only done if the author is a complete harridan and bruises the publisher’s business, or if the author and agent agree that the publisher is no longer a fit for the book). There are all sorts of other clauses and subsets in here, so don’t take this as law.

v.      Right, so then you have a book out. And someone somewhere with some pull reads it (or reads about it) and decides they’d like to make a film out of it.

vi.      A production company approaches you/your agent/your publisher to obtain the permission to make a single film/TV series/radio drama/whatever.

vii.      You still own the IP.

viii.      The production company goes into talks with your agent/your publisher.

ix.      The production company leases the IP from you for the right to make an audio-visual production of your IP. Usually there’s an agreement with the publisher as well for cross promotion/optioning rights/etc. but as I’ve never seen that side of it, I’m not certain which way the money crisscrosses, or what sorts of deals the publisher and production company make with one another.

x.      You get an optioning fee from the production company for the right to lease your IP and make the production. Your agent/publisher might also work into your deal a percentage of box office/green-lighting fee/merchandise/ etc. They may also work into your contract the option to write the screenplay or work with the writer(s) as a co-writer or a consultant.

xi.      Generally, for every year that the production company holds a reserve on your IP, you get an optioning fee up until the project is green-lit. After the project is green-lit (that is, production officially begins), you will not receive another option fee. Sometimes instead of doing a yearly optioning fee, you may get a lump-sum and will sign a contract saying that you’re okay with that. As long as the production company wishes to hold the option to make the production, they can do as long as they pay you your fee. This means that they could hold it for decades and never make a production from it, and that is their choice. It’s legally allowable as long as they keep paying your optioning fee (though it can be frustrating for writers!) Sometimes there’s a times-up clause added to contracts stipulating that the option expires if a production isn’t made after a certain number of years. There is a very good reason for all this waiting – producers have to find the money to make the film and cannot be worried about you wandering away with the IP while they’re hitting up investors and granting agencies. They pay you to reserve the lease on the IP so they can have the time to get their team together.

xii.      THUS – your ownership of your IP is still forever your own, unless you sell it to the publisher/production company. HOWEVER, the production company/publisher ALSO has the right to copyright anything they make up/add to the IP. For example, J.K. Rowling owns the IP for Harry Potter, but Warner Brothers owns the visual representation of Harry Potter (i.e. pictures/videos/dolls/games/etc. of Daniel Radcliffe while he’s playing Harry Potter. I assume that Mr. Radcliffe gets a cut of those profits for leasing his image to WB).

 *This is based on what I’ve learned reading guild and union websites, my own contracts, and chatting with authors who’ve had their work optioned/producers who’ve optioned work. This may not be the exact path or reality for everyone. Always, always consult with your agent. Also, I might have misunderstood and therefore misrepresented some facts – in which case, please feel free to correct me so I can make this more accurate!


Q: Is some editor or agent going to steal my ideas or my work when I submit to them?

This is the number one question I get. Thing is, if an editor or publisher likes your idea, they’ll SIGN it, not STEAL it.

Editors and agents only make money when you, their author, makes money i.e. when your book is published and that book sells. Their job is to make their clients/authors money. They won’t ever make any money if it gets out that they’ve stolen someone’s ideas – they will be blacklisted and boycotted and will never work again.

Thus, it’d be pretty damn stupid for them to steal your ideas, wouldn’t it?  They are in the business of publishing books, not stealing them. So no, I wouldn’t worry about some editor or agent stealing your ideas or work.

That said, always faithfully and thoroughly research the publishers, editors, and agents you’re querying. If their vibe is off, don’t do it. If there are websites warning you off these people, don’t do it. If they ask for a fee up front, be wary. When in doubt, email some of their other clients and ask if they’re happy.

There are organizations that certify and verify agents/editors. You can look into them and see if your agent/editor of choice is on that list, if you so desire.

Q: What if I get plagiarized?

Take a deep breath. Contact your agent. They have solicitors on staff or are trained themselves to handle this. Be prepared to offer up proof – your drafts chain, that registered mail package, or print copies of earlier drafts that show the organic progress of your work. If you have no agent, inquire with author folks about entertainment lawyers they know and recommend.

Do NOT attack the person you think plagiarized you. Do NOT immediately contact the author you think plagiarized you, nor their editor, agent, or publisher.

Build your case of proof and follow the advice of legal counsel.

Be sure that you really HAVE been plagiarized before you ask for someone to look into it. Be aware that a zeitgeist can cause many similar novels to come out at the same time, or that someone might have just randomly had an idea like yours, or had been inspired by the same thing that inspired you, etc. It has to be quite specific for it to be plagiarism – the lifting wholesale of passages, or concepts, or characters. Read this definition of plagiarism for more details.

Also, book titles aren’t copyrightable unless they’re really super specific. For example: There were three different books named Triptych that came out the same year as mine did; there is a famous Karen Slaughter book by the same name that I was unaware already existed when I named my novel; there is a film of the same name coming out in the next few years. But we can’t sue each other because the stories, covers, genres, and narratives/plots/characters are all very different.

However, if I were to write a book about a young witch named Karry Rotter and talked about how she goes to Magic Day Care, then I’d be infringing on Rowling’s copyright as it’s clear that I’m deliberately recalling and imitating her work. Unless it’s satire.

Parody, satire, and transformative works (fanfic, mashups, social commentary, etc.) are protected by Fair Use laws. Read up on that if you’re uncertain what all of that means.

Some authors endorse fanworks (I do! I do!) Some choose not to comment on fanworks, and some actually ask fans to not create fanworks for personal or legal reasons – please be aware of who does and doesn’t endorse fanwork if you are choosing to do a fanwork based on their IP and be aware that you could be delivered a Cease & Desist if you disregard an author’s posted preference.

Q: Are print zines and collections more reputable than online ones?

One medium is not inherently more trustworthy than the other. It’s the people behind the publishing company you should be evaluating.

All I can say is “do your research”. Read up on them, check what some of their other published authors say about them, etc.

Q: Should I have to pay for reviews or to enter contests?

Generally speaking, money should always flow towards the writer. (Even when there are diversions in the stream to make sure your agent/editor gets their hard-earned percentage).

Some contests or review sites have fees to enter your work – this is usually just to offset admin costs, or the cost of mailing your books out. Read the fine print very, very carefully and see if it’s worth it. Ask friends or other writers who may have experience with that group to see if they think it’s legit. If you don’t know, email the contest/reviewers and ask them to please break down the fee you pay, and where the money goes.

In the end, if it gives you the wibbles, don’t do it.

 Q: How do I know who isn’t good to submit to?

Check out Preditors and Editors; read write ups on publishers/editors/agents on Absolute Write, DuoTrope (pay) and similar sitesMSFV, etc.; talk to or email clients/authors who have worked with those people before and ask if they’d recommend them; etc.

In the end, my biggest piece of advice is

do your homework.


Does anyone have any other sites they use to register their work, or research agents/editors/publishers websites or books that they’d like to share?



For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.


JM FreyWords for Writers: Protecting Your Work
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Words for Writers: Getting Started

Today I’m going to answer some questions. I find that I get these questions asked of me frequently, and they all sort of go together, so I figured I ought to address them all in one blog post.


1)      How did you become a writer?


I began writing fanfic when I was about eleven. Eventually started to write original stories. I did NaNoWriMo for a few years before I produced a manuscript that I thought was worth starting to shop around. My story at this point is quite traditional – I finished and polished the manuscript, wrote a query letter and beta’d/edited/polished it just as much as the novel. Then I made an Excel file of all the agents and publishers that accepted unsolicited submissions that I thought I would like to work with. Then I began querying them, one by one. As each rejection letter came back, I revised my query and the manuscript based on the advice I received from them (if any).


However, at the same time, I was networking. I went to book launches, made friends with local authors, and went to a lot of science fiction conventions. At one such convention, a literary SF/F con in Toronto, I brought copies of my pitch and query letter, just in case. Good thing I did, because I met the woman who eventually became to acquiring editor at a room party. We got to talking, she asked about my book, I was able to tell her about it and show her the pitch. (Of course, I didn’t know she was an editor when I did so or I might have been very nervous!)


She asked for me to send her the full, which I did, and after I worked on some revisions she requested, she asked to sign the book to Dragon Moon Press. I agreed, and in April 2011 the book came out.


In the end, the querying wasn’t what got me the contract. However, the querying process helped me improve my pitch and my query letter, so it was professional and persuasive when DMP saw it.


So, yes, I was in the right place at the right time, and I met the right person. But when that moment was gifted to me, I was fully prepared for it. The book was finished, I’d written my query letters, my one-page synopsis, some marketing ideas, my bio, and a pitch. I had a website, some short stories published, and a sense of what kind of writer I wanted to be.


In short, when opportunity knocked, I was able to open the door with my trousers up.


2)      Do you have any advice on how I can become a writer?


Write. A lot.

Read. A lot.

Show your writing to people. A lot.

Hone your craft. A lot.

Write more. A lot.


(I wrote, like, a bazillion words of fanfic from the age of 11 to 28, and posted most of it online. Trust me, there is no trial-by-fire like the anonymous commenters on one’s ficblog/ff.n. I began my first original novel at 19. My first novel took 8 years to complete. The second took one and I haven’t finished editing it yet. My third took about 6 months to write and 3 years to edit and sell. I was doing most of this simultaneously, along with a BA and then an MA.)


3)      Do you work with a beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?




After I’ve finished a new manuscript, I  give it about a week to cool off. Then I do an extensive re-read and polish. Then I send the completed manuscript to at least three or four people and I collate their feedback when it comes. Once I’ve read and organized all of their feedback – paying special attention to where their comments overlap – I begin draft 2.  I also send my books to my Mum, but that’s because she’s a ruthless typo-hunter. And if something isn’t working, Mum says so. She doesn’t “that’s nice dear” me, and I love her to bits for it.


4)      Can I be in your beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?


Sorry, but no. I’ve worked hard to find a group of people with whom I can work and on whom I can rely (and whose work I enjoy helping them polish and edit). I’m afraid I’m just not seeking to expand the group. I’ve found a balance that works for me; it’s up to you to find something that works for you.


5)      How do I find a beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?


I found my beta group through a few avenues – when I was on the JET Programme in Japan, those of us English Speakers who were doing NaNoWriMo in my province got together once a week and we turned into a critique group after NaNo was over. I’ve become critique partners with some of my publisher-siblings, and also with some friends I made back when I was still writing fanfic, and with people I jelled with in my university playwriting and short story classes. I collected my circle quite organically.


If you want to build your own circle, check out your local NaNoWriMo regional chat rooms or forums; put an ad in the student newspaper or newsletter; talk to the fanficcers in your circle; start or join a Facebook group; join MSFV’s Critique Partner Speed Dating; attend local book launches and network with other new writers in attendance; check out the notice boards in the local book store or talk to the owner about if they know some authors looking for an addition to their group; join a local writing group (check out the activity boards at your local rec centre, library, community hall, etc.); join a continuing education writing class; take a writing class in university; go to local literary conventions and hang out in the bar/café to talk with other writers; attend critique events or matchups at conventions; go to local geek pub nights or trivia nights, or other such meet-ups and talk to other writers; apply to and attend writers retreats.


In short – be proactive and network. Eventually you’ll find the people you mesh with!


Also, don’t be disheartened if you agree to work with someone and you find you can’t. Finding a great critique partner is like finding your spouse – sometimes you have to edit with some frogs before you find your prince(ess). Just part ways amiably and burn no bridges, and things should be fine.


6)      Can you read my story and give me feedback?


Again, sadly no. I used to be able to say yes, but I’m afraid the constraints and demands on my writing time have grown such that I cannot take on extra responsibilities. I wish I could, but if I have to choose between getting my work done and reading yours, I have to work on mine. I hope you find a great critique partner of your own to work with!


7)      How do I get published?


When people ask this, they are usually really asking for me to share the Secret Magic Trick of Becoming a Published Author.


I’m afraid there isn’t a Secret Magic Trick of Becoming a Published Author.


There is one way and one way only to Become a Published Author, and it is this:


  • Write a book.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it
  • Send it out to beta readers / critique partners and get their advice.
  • Edit your book based on said advice.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it
  • Send it back out to your betas/critique partners.
  • Edit your book based on said advice.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it.
  • Write an incredible query letter. Polish the ever loving crap out of it.
  • Decide if you want to go the a)big-pub route, the b)small-pub route, or the c)self-pub route.
    • If A:
      • Research agents in writing guides and on sites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, or by figuring out the agents of authors that you admite/whose work resembles yours.
      • Very politely and very professionally query said agents based on their individual and specific submission guidelines.
      • Make any revisions and polishes they recommend in their rejection letters/requests for revisions.
      • Continue with the above until one of them agrees to represent you, or until you’ve run out of options and nobody has agreed to represent you or your manuscript
      • Start a new manuscript and start from point 1.
  • If B:
    • Research small press publishers in published writing guides, on sites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, etc. or by figuring out the publishers of authors that you admire/whose work resembles yours.
    • Very politely and very professionally query said publishers based on their individual and specific submission guidelines.
    • Make any revisions and polishes they recommend in their rejection letters/requests for revisions.
    • Continue with the above until one of them agrees to publish your manuscript, or until you’ve run out of options and nobody has agreed to take manuscript
    • Start a new manuscript and start from point 1.

If C:

  • Research self-pub options and companies and go with the one that you feel is safest, most reliable, and most suitable for your needs.
  • Work with an excellent and professional editor to polish the manuscript again; preferably someone with a good CV. Be prepared to pay for this. It’s totally worth it.
  • Design or hire a designer to do your marketing/cover/etc.


  • Work with your acquiring editor / professionally hired editor to get the book ready for the typesetter/publication.
  • Sign and adhere to your contract.
  • Do all the stuff you need to do for marketing, wait an agonizing bunch of time for the book’s release date.
  • Ta da! Published!*


*Expect this to be a 2-20 year process.


Okay, so I apologize for being a bit blunt and glib there, but that’s really the truth of it. You write a great book, you find someone to publish it, and it gets published. There’s no secret, no back door, no short cut. You have to write a great book and someone has to agree to publish it, or you choose to publish it yourself. Either is fine – it’s just what you choose.


And if the book you write isn’t great, then you write a new book, start all over again, and see if people want that one.  And if that one doesn’t sell, you do it again.


This is a process that you might have to do over and over until something sticks – like an Olympic diver learning how to enter the water without a splash, it takes dozens, perhaps hundreds of attempts to get it right.


Also – bribing agents/publishers will not work. If anything, sending a box of cookies with your manuscript will just make the agent/publisher wig out and think you’re a weirdo, or a pain in the arse who can’t read the query submission rules and therefore is not worth working with. Gifts are not appropriate until such a time that you HAVE a relationship with that agent/publisher/editor. Neither are extras. Neither are bribes. Neither is begging for special compensation or special treatment. Neither is ignoring the submission/query guidelines.


YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL. If your book isn’t good enough to stand on its own merit, then it’s not good enough to publish. Period.


If it helps: Triptych was the third book I’d written. The first two I shopped a little bit and then put in the morgue when it was clear they weren’t going to get any bites and that I wasn’t on the level of writing that I wanted to be at yet. Triptych accumulated thirty-four rejections (with very few requests to read the full manuscript) before Dragon Moon Press decided to read it. Even then it was rejected conditionally; there were lots of edits the editor wanted me to do before I was to resubmit. So, even my first victory wasn’t effortless or like some magical fairy tale. It took lots of hard work and sixty-four drafts before the book was ready to be seen by the public. And I wouldn’t trade in a second of it.


I hope this blog post has been helpful for you, and not too harsh!



For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Getting Started
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Thank you!

I just wanted to say thank you to those who reblogged, tweeted, and otherwise helped spread the word about my Open Letter To Fandom and the Triptych give-away last month.

For those of you who got a copy: Thanks for getting in contact with me, and I really hope you enjoy the book. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it. (No, no, I won’t be scouring TUmblr for fanart… absolutely not…nope… *scours*)

For those of you who didn’t get a free copy: the book is available at Chapters/Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Powels, Amazon, and a plethora of other places. Check with your local independant book shop or my online store for links.

Please keep your fingers crossed for me at the Lambda Awards!

And as an extra thank you, here, have a photo of me holding the book by the London Eye. (Where one of the pivitol scenes takes place)


Picture by Karen Wood

JM FreyThank you!
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Words for Writers: Refilling the Creative Well

Almost exactly 365 days after my agent called to offer me representation (Good Friday, 2011), he sent out the first submission package for the novel I queried him with. It’s been two weeks since then, with a little bit of feedback from publishers, but nothing substantial, and I’ve nearly gotten over my willies over the fact that there are editors out there at major publishing houses who might be reading my manuscript right now.

When Authors are on submission, the advice they get from the agents, support circles, advice blogs, and writer buddies is nearly always the same thing:  “Start a new project to keep you distracted.”

Excellent advice to my mind. It allows you to fall in love with new characters, and a new world, and helps you unclench your fingers from around the one that’s now out in the real world, all grown up and out of your control.

I want to follow that advice; to the point where I sent my agent the pitches and/or synopsis for five other possible projects. I am waiting to hear which he thinks would be the best next step. But while I’m waiting for his reply, I ought to be reading.

And I’m not.

This is a bit of a problem, I think.

I want to read. I know I should be reading. I know I should be diving into the world of the genre/age range that I am working in and roll around in the glorious prose, let the soft sweet prickly ends of letters cling to my skin and my hair, let its words whisper past my ears, let its character tenderly pluck my heart strings, let its worlds dazzle my eyes and steal my breath.

But I can’t. I’m scared.

I’m afraid that I’ll read a YA Adventure book and it will be better than mine. It will be steampunkier and more creative, that the world will be more awesome than mine, the MC more likeable and badass, the plot more engaging, the prose more vivid, the villain more shiver-inducing. I am afraid that it will make me throw up my hands and say, “I quit!”

I am afraid that I’ll read a book like mine and decide that there’s no place for mine in the world, because they’ve already done everything I wanted to do, and did it better. I am afraid that I will read a book nothing at all like mine and get resentful and worried that I’m not writing books of that quality in that genre instead.

I was genuinely heartbroken when I saw the first trailer for “Lost in Austen”,  because I had been about 1/3rd of the way through writing a novel with the exact same premise. I punched the wall so hard I left a mark on the plaster, and I mourned the loss of those characters and that world for days.  I was able to salvage some of the characters and scenes for another novel I wrote in the era, but ultimately the new book still feels a little like the puppy your dad buys you after your old dog is put down – wonderful, energetic, loving, but not the same. I really like this book, and am really proud of it, and would really like to sell it to a publisher… but I still can’t help but think of Lost in Austen every time I re-read it.

So, to alleviate this fear I’ve been turning a lot to fanfiction.

Partially, (and I will admit that this is totally shallow,) this is because these are stories that cannot, in any way, compete with my books. These are not professional works written for profit, and these are not works filled with original characters and worlds that might end up being objectively ‘better’ than mine. I am already familiar with the worlds and characters, so I can’t resent them.  I can simply turn off my analytical brain and enjoy the story for the story’s sake, because I have nothing to fear from it.

When I start a new book, I also get slightly anxious that I won’t like the characters or the setting.  I had to stop reading Emma because the titular heroine drove me bonkers. I know that she gets better, that’s the point of the novel, but I didn’t have the patience or enough affection for Emma as she was to want to stick it out long enough. Twice in the last year I’ve begun YA books and left them unfinished because I wasn’t feeling engaged.

One of the joys of reading fanfiction is that I already know I love the characters and worlds. The fandom settles over me like a warm sweater, the jumper from university that I’ve had for ten years, whose little whorls and pulls and pilled pile I know intimately; I know who these people are, I know where and when they are, and I understand the shorthand of place and setting. Even when the story is an AU or a crossover, the core of the story and the characters remains the same, and that is a comfort. It is home cooking, Mom’s favourite dishes, and I know I will enjoy the meal and not be stuck trying to figure out which fork I’m supposed to be using at the fancy new restaurant. I feel safe reading these stories, and the anxiety of not like the setting or the characters is absent.

The third reason I read so much fanfiction is that I find the writing incredibly fresh. Most of the writers are not professionals. They don’t do this for a living. They don’t have word counts to hit every day, and editing deadlines, and editors/agents/marketing teams guiding their projects. I’m not implying that professional writing is stale or formulaic, only that the modes and motivations of creation inevitably must inform the creation.

Fanfiction writers are truly free to write whatever they want, at whatever pace they want. And the way that some of these writers – either because they know the rules and choose to deliberately break them, or because they don’t know the rules and they are breaking them without knowing it and creating something new and glorious – assemble narratives is stunning.

Sure, there’s really abysmal fanfiction out there, and the bad is bad. But there is also some really incredible fanfiction, and the good stuff is fantastic.

Mix in the flexibility of the internet as a medium of conveying the story, and, gosh, wow. I think one of the most gorgeous transmedia multi-layered narratives I ever experienced is “Missed the Saturday Dance” by Zoetrope (Stargate Atlantis).   I love it when authors can string me along like taffy for weeks, months, years while making me anticipate the next chapter of their works in progress. I love the thrill of seeing a new chapter come up online, and the horror of being left at an intense cliffhanger.

Sure, there are tropes and stereotypes, idioms and metaphors and phrases that are recycled within the fanfiction of a specific fandom, but that also happens within the genres/age range groups of published novels as well.  But more often than not, I find myself jotting down phrases, or tricks used to convey character, or ways of displaying dialogue, or ways of playing with the page.

I begin to intensely enjoy the play aspect of fanfiction.

Playing with format, with character, with setting, with narrative, with logic, with the rules. I love how fanfiction can focus on minutiae; how a writer can devote 100 or 100,000 on a character study, how conventions and expectations can be inverted, subverted, and reverted.

I become invigorated. I want to try out some of the things I’ve learned, apply them to my words-on-a-page format of my novels and see if I can make it work. I want to play within the worlds in my head.

And this leads into the creative-well filling of the title of this post.  I often refer to my creativity in water metaphors and symbolism. Words flow down my arms, through my fingers, around the keyboard and onto the digital page. Ideas and characters percolate and boil in my brain until the kettle whistles and all the froth of heat and water becomes a perfectly directed cone of steam, a tight idea ready to be written down. Characters and settings slosh between my ears, and occasionally formulate shards of ice that poke into my brain and stab me with an excellent idea.

At the end of a novel, I feel drained. My metaphorical water table of creativity is so low that even crawling across the desert to drink at my bookshelf oasis is hard work. I lose all ambition to read, I get insecure and my confidence-membrane dries out and cracks. I feel like I will never not be parched again.

I know I should reach for the big gallon jugs of water that are the books of my professional colleagues, but the water bottles of the unique fanfiction writers are so much more appealing, and much easier to heft. I don’t want to work, I want to play.

And then, slowly, as my well begins to refill, I find the strength have confidence in my projects and to be recovered enough to try out new novels. Inevitably I enjoy them and wonder why I was being so silly, fearing to read the books, fearing that I would compare them with mine and find mine lacking. Nobody’s novels will ever be like mine, because nobody else is me. Even if we worked from the exact same character list and pitch, my version of a novel would never exactly match, say, Suzanne Collins’, or Lesley Livingston’s, or Adrienne Kress’.

Or Random Nexus, Velvet Mace, or Sheafrotherdon, for that matter. (Though, holy heck, wouldn’t that be a fun thing to try on Archive of Our Own?)

There is nothing to compare, and nothing to fear, because there is no such thing as “a better novel than mine.” Books and stories are different from one another, not “better” or “worse.”

I become even more hydrated, confident in my own work and adoring, celebrating the work of my professional colleagues, splashing amid the fanfiction, and taking in great gulps of inspiration.

It often takes a while for my well to refill. I read for a month or more, and write nothing. I’ve given myself April off of writing – purposefully holding back so that when I do sit down at the computer on May 1st, the stone walls of my well ought to be overflowing, the kettle just beginning the whistle, and the ice shards poking out all over in my gray matter.

The cycle starts again. I imagine my creativity like those posters in your primary school classroom with the mountains and the rainclouds and the lakes, an endless water cycle. The whole ecosystem is needed, necessary, and sometimes there are dry spells. But sometimes, when the weather is lined up just right, there are also floods.


Reminder: J.M. Frey is giving away eBooks of TRIPTYCH or THE DARK SIDE OF THE GLASS on her Tumblr to fancrafters (fanfiction, fanart, cosplay, etc.) until April 30th. Read about the give away here.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Refilling the Creative Well
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APPEARANCE: Lambda Literary Award Nominees Reading

Where: Slack’s on Church

When: Tuesday, 15 May 2012; 19:00 until 22:00


What: Let’s get loud & proud about the Toronto-based Lambda Literary Award nominees: Farzana Doctor, Kristyn Dunnion, JM Frey & Karleen Pendleton Jiménez! Come out to hear these amazing writers read (see bios below) and celebrate their nominations. Hosted By Heather J Wood & Jim Nason.

The Awards: For more about the awards check out this link.

The Authors:


Farzana Doctor’s first novel, Stealing Nasreen, received critical acclaim and earned a devoted readership upon its release in 2007. Her second book, Six Metres of Pavement (Dundurn 2011), was praised by Publishers Weekly praised as “..a paean to second chances” and was named one of Now Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2011. It also won the Rainbow Award for Best Contemporary Lesbian General Fiction, and had been short-listed for a Lambda Award general Lesbian Fiction category. Farzana was named as one of CBC Books’ “Ten Canadian Women Writers You Need to Read Now” and was the recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Grant (2011). She is a co-curator of the Brockton Writers Series.

Kristyn Dunnion is a Lady punk. Her collection of linked stories, The Dirt Chronicles, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2011 and is shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Awards, general Lesbian Fiction category. Kristyn’s noteworthy novels include MISSING MATTHEW, a quirky mystery for young rebels, MOSH PIT, a queer punk love tragedy, and BIG BIG SKY, an anarcho-queer speculative fiction – all published by Red Deer Press. Her stories are widely anthologized, including in SubTerrain Magazine, Fist of the SpiderWoman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire, With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, and Peripheries: Erotic Lesbian Futures. Kristyn is a performance artist and bassist. She likes big boots, shaved heads, and loud music.

J. M. Frey is the author of TRIPTYCH (Dragon Moon Press), and “The Once and Now-ish King” in WHEN THE HERO COMES HOME (Dragon Moon Press, August 2011), THE DARK SIDE OF THE GLASS (Double Dragon Publishing, June 2012), and “Whose Doctor?” in DOCTOR WHO IN TIME AND SPACE (McFarland Press, Fall 2012). She holds a BA in Dramatic Literature, where she studied playwriting and traditional Japanese theatre forms, and a Masters of Communications and Culture, where she focused on fanthropology. She is active in the Toronto geek community, presenting at awards ceremonies, appearing on TV, radio, podcasts, live panels and documentaries to discuss all things fandom through the lens of Academia, and has lectured at the Pop Culture Association of America’s Annual Conference (San Francisco), at the University of Cardiff’s ‘Whoniversal Appeal’ Conference, and the Technology and Pedagogy Conference at York University. Frey’s pie-in-the-sky dream is to one day sing a duet with John Barrowman. Triptych is nominated in two Lambda Literary Award categories.


Karleen Pendleton Jiménez is the author of How to Get a Girl Pregnant, a finalist for a 2012 Lambda Literary Award in the category Lesbian Memoir. Her children’s book Are You a Boy or a Girl? was also a Lambda Literary finalist in 2001, and her award-winning film Tomboy has been screened around the world.

JM FreyAPPEARANCE: Lambda Literary Award Nominees Reading
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